Interrogating Place: Częstochowa, Poland

(an email letter, summer 2010)

the town of częstochowa is famous as the site of the pauline monastery of jasna góra ("bright mountain"), a shrine to the virgin mary whose greatest treasure is the icon of the black madonna, a painting said by legend to have been made by st. luke himself, which has been in częstochowa since 1382.  the painting is poland's greatest relic and the shrine is the country's greatest site of pilgrimage--for many, poland's spiritual heart.  john paul II was a fervent devotee of the virgin mary and made four pilgrimages as pope to pray before the black madonna between 1979 and 1997.  a statue of john paul II now stands outside the monastery. 

the shrine sits at one end of the town's central artery, the aleja najświętszej maryi panny, or "nmp" for short, a spacious boulevard with a park running down the middle, alive with commerce. 

at the other end of nmp, perhaps a mile and a half away along a straight meridian, is the city's stary rynek, its "old square"--the oldest in the city, and after 1700 the center of the jewish district. by the 1860s jews comprised a third of częstochowa's citizens, a proportion that remained the same through the period of the city's industrialization and into the 1930s.  on the eve of the war, some 30,000 jews lived in częstochowa, and the city had become a vital center for jewish life of many sorts, including a large number of ger chasidim and a thriving yiddish literary culture (home of the famed writer i.l. peretz).  four daily jewish newspapers existed, and three weekly newspapers.  jews dominated the textile, leather and grocery businesses, and owned about half of the city's shops (often small mom-and-pop businesses).  the stary rynek appeard this way around the turn of the 20th century:

anti-jewish attitudes among certain parts of the polish population preceded the arrival of the germans in 1939.  on june 18, 1937, anti-jewish riots resulted in dozens of shops and apartments being attacked and destroyed, and a synagogue set on fire.  according to police reports, some 15,000 poles took part in the riots.  the germans occupied częstochowa on sunday, september 3rd, 1939, and the very next day initiated a pogrom that lasted for three days in which more than 1000 jews and poles were murdered, as well as beaten, raped and robbed.  within weeks the historic old synagogue at the corner of milowska and nadzeczna streets was burned down--one of the anchors of the community.

two months later, the "new synagogue" on ulica wilsona was destroyed.

the nazis established a ghetto in the city on april 9th, 1941 and sealed it on august 13th, 1941.  with transports from other towns, the ghetto's population reached some 50,000 in the next months.  in may 1942, targeted assassinations of jewish cultural and political elites occurred in the ghetto, and beginning on september 22nd, 1942--yom kippur--roundups, "selections" and liquidation began.  from september 22nd until october 8th, five major deportations each involving freight trains 60 cars long sent approximately 40,000 to death at treblinka.  thousands of elderly people and children were not deported but executed by firing squad in the streets and buried in mass graves.  some 4000 remained in a greatly reduced ghetto, and were placed in four slave labor camps in and around the city, including hasag-pelcery, an armaments factory whose population later swelled to 10,000 and which became a concentration camp of its own.  at the beginning of 1944, over a thousand prisoners were transported to buchenwald (men) and dachau (women)--all perished--and in mid-january 1945, the nazis evacuated 3000 prisoners to various camps in germany, none of whom survived.  about 5000 jews were liberated by the red army later that month.  

by june 1946, 2000 jews had returned to or remained in częstochowa.  in the wake of the post-war pogrom in the nearby town of kielce on july 4th, 1946, most of the remaining częstochowa jews chose to emigrate.  when on september 8th, 1946, 1.5 million people gathered at the shrine of jasna góra to rededicate the nation to the immaculate heart of mary, the former jewish quarter on the other end of the city lay in devastation.

more than sixty years later, the neighborhood remains poor, blighted and dangerous.  it is a place where the distortions of at least three regimes--nazi, communist and now capitalist--co-mingle.  while communist-era housing blocks have been built along some streets, and commerce has returned in small measure, large sections of the neighborhood remain unreconstructed.  unemployment is high and visible.  

almost none of the history of the quarter is publicly marked.  on january 4th, 1943, 26 jews were executed by firing squad in retaliation for an attempted murder of nazis conducting deportations to treblinka in the months previous.  their bodies are buried at an unmarked location somewhere near this site--

on this spot in july 1943, 140 jews were massacred in the remaining ("small") ghetto--

--and their bodies buried behind the building in a location that is not marked.

this is the unmarked site of the former old synagogue today:

these are some of the many courtyards in which jews were rounded up in the former ghetto:

the only acknowledged mass graves exist at 21 kawia street, two of them, separated by a dirt track, each behind a locked gate--

as i was leaving this site, a young drunk man approached me and said, in broken english, "do you know the history here?"  

"i do," i said.  

"you're here about the jews--aren't you?" he said with detachment.

"i am," i said, and asked, "are you from this neighborhood?"

"i was born here and lived here here my whole life," he said.  then he asked, "do you know what anti-semitism is?"  

a building i had just photographed appeared in my mind, a few minutes walk from where we stood, in the heart of the former ghetto--

then he said emphatically, "here" (pointing to the ground and waving his hand in a circle, indicating the neighborhood) "there's not just anti-semitism," but leaning toward me somewhat menacingly, "mega MEGA anti-semitism."  i looked at him and said nothing.  "if i were you," he said pointing at my yarmulke (the yarmulke i wear at gravesites still on my head), "i would not be here long."  it was more a warning than a threat, but not friendly.  after looking into his eyes in silence for a long moment, i made my departure.  he began to walk alongside me mockingly.  when the shopkeeper who keeps the key to the gates around the mass graves appeared--a sympathetic woman--the man melted away. 

i ask myself:  are częstochowa's contrasts--the physical, religio-political and psychic distances that define the city--the result of reasons or the retreat of reasons?  do they reflect broadly endorsed, quasi-official forms of forgetting, or the accretion of indifference--and what is the difference between the two?  i ask myself and i can't say.  at the least, it seems that częstochowa is a place where remembering has no urgency, and where both remembering and forgetting exist on summits, bright at one end of the city (as the name has it), abject at the other end.  somehow, at the very same time, it seems that the gods of these summits are in continuous and profound discourse, and no discourse at all.